Roosevelt entered office at a time when fear and panic had paralyzed the nation. In a famous passage, historian Arthur Schlesinger described the mood at FDR's inauguration: "It was now a matter of seeing whether a representative democracy could conquer economic collapse. It was a matter of staving off violence -- even, some though -- revolution."

FDR's natural air of confidence and optimism did much to reassure the nation. His inauguration on March 4 occurred literally in the middle of a terrifying bank panic -- hence the backdrop for his famous words: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The very next day, to prevent a run on banks, he declared a "bank holiday," closing all banks indefinitely until bankers and government could regain control of the situation. The term "holiday" was meant to give a festive air to what was actually a desperate situation, but such was FDR's desire to provide hope to the nation.

Congress was almost entirely compliant and gave the President everything he wanted. The Emergency Banking Bill, which strengthened, reorganized and reopened the most solvent banks, was passed overwhelmingly by Congress with little debate. On March 12, Roosevelt announced that the soundest banks would reopen. On March 13, deposits at those banks exceeded withdrawals -- a tremendous relief to a worried nation. "Capitalism was saved in eight days," said Raymond Moley, a member of the President's Brain Trust.

The bank holiday was a vivid example of the effectiveness of government intervention in an economic crisis. Hoover had allowed two previous bank panics to run their course, which contributed to over 10,000 bank failures and $2 billion in lost deposits. The bank holiday secured Roosevelt's political reputation, and convinced both Congress and the public that the New Deal was the right road to follow.

Roosevelt's strategy consisted of two parts: first, provide relief for those who needed it most, which often involved a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. Second, provide long-lasting reform to the nation's economy, through reorganization and the creation of new agencies. Most of Roosevelt's policies can be described as "taking from one pocket to put in the other." Fixated with a balanced budget, and fretful when it was not, Roosevelt made sure that anything given to one sector of the economy was taken from somewhere else. He did not accept Keynes' recommendation to begin heavy deficit spending, and did not do so until the threat of World War II forced him to.

Roosevelt's legendary "First 100 Days" concentrated on the first part of his strategy: immediate relief. From March 9 to June 16, 1933, FDR sent Congress a record number of bills, all of which passed easily. These included the creation of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Congress also gave the Federal Trade Commission broad new regulatory powers, and provided mortgage relief to millions of farmers and homeowners.

The success of the First 100 Days was important, because it got the New Deal off to a strong and early start. Later, the conservative Supreme Court would declare much of the New Deal unconstitutional, and Roosevelt's political prestige would decline as his policies failed to resolve the Depression. If Roosevelt had not passed his agenda early, we would probably be without many New Deal programs we take for granted today.

Return to Timeline